The Ballad of Buster Scruggs v The Future of Independent Cinema in the UK

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest feature film from the frequently-brilliant Coen Brothers, continuing their display of love towards the American Western genre. It is also their first for streaming platform Netflix, in a move that is becoming more and more common in the modern age of cinema.

The move to streaming platforms may feel progressive, but it isn’t great news for independent cinemas in the UK.

The film – more hit than miss

Watching ‘Buster Scruggs’, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching a Netflix series that has been mashed into a single film, perhaps to allow it to be considered as an Oscar contender. If this is the case, it’s a shame, though it is understandable.

It is, as is often the case with vignette films, a little hit and miss. The opening titular short is a high point, with a hilariously-positive character singing his way through a killing spree. Tim Blake Nelson is a joy to watch and his interactions with the locals is shot to perfection (pun not initially intended). Both ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’ are memorable and very much work in their own right, making me long for more of an expanded narrative.

‘Meal Ticket’ has really stuck with me and I kept thinking about it many days after I saw it, with Harry Melling starring as a limbless performing artist working alongside Liam Neeson. It unravels at a depressingly effective rate, with the final scene leaving me on the edge of my seat for all the wrong reasons. A perfect example of short film-making.

Whilst the ‘All Gold Canyon’ short is largely forgettable, it isn’t bad. It’s really a shame that the final vignette, ‘The Mortal Remains’, is such a disappointing way to finish the feature. It is neither emotionally effective nor steeped in humour, and it doesn’t really have much to say. It’s a missed opportunity to perhaps tie the previous five shorts together, at least with a thematic link. Instead it confirms the suspicions that these were six independently-realised pieces of art that function in their own right.

The Coen Brothers may deny it but it doesn’t run like a movie. The overarching theme is ‘American Western as a genre’ rather than there being a connecting emotional theme or associated character. Thankfully, it is a genre that the film-makers know how to handle and the results are more hit than miss.

The shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’

Having recently become a father, Netflix is very convenient for me, but I’d never opt to experience a film at home if there’s an option to see it at the cinema. You can’t quite appreciate the magic of the cinema when watching on a small screen at home.

My main criticism, therefore, is that it was released in an exclusive deal with Curzon cinemas in the UK. As it happens, my location means I have close access to three brilliant independent cinemas: QUAD in Derby, Phoenix in Leicester and Broadway in Nottingham. Sadly, not one of these is part of the Curzon group; my nearest Curzon is 64 miles away in Sheffield. This led to Jake Harvey (Phoenix, Leicester), Caroline Hennigan (Broadway Cinema, Nottingham), Adam J Marsh (Quad Cinema, Derby) and the owners of twelve other independent cinemas to write an open letter to Netflix to reconsider their policy.

I sit on a film discussion group panel and I know that a good number of the members do not subscribe to any online streaming service. My mother, who previously attended a Coen Brothers discussion course with me, has no means of watching ‘Buster Scruggs’ unless it’s on at a cinema. By making this exclusive to Curzon, they have excluded a large demographic of their potential audience.

‘Buster Scruggs’ follows excellent Netflix exclusives like Annihilation, Okja and Roma, all critically acclaimed and well-received by cinephiles. They even funded the completion of a posthumous release from director Orson Welles. The quality is undeniable. The problem isn’t in the quality. It’s in the lack of support to  the truly independent cinemas that have supported non-mainstream releases for so long.

As it turns out, ‘Buster Scruggs’ is the first Coen Brothers film in over a decade I haven’t watched at the cinema. For me, this is a great shame and it’s saddening to think this is where some great directors are taking their latest pictures.

Overall, this is a mostly great film that some fans of the Coen Brothers will enjoy on the big screen, depending on a combination of a geographical lottery and your willingness to drive. For the rest of us, we’ll have to settle for the small screen and an increasing temptation to skip the bad segments, facilitating the shift from ‘cinema as art’ to ‘cinema as disposable commodity’.

Han Solo actor confirmed!

Earlier today at the Star Wars Celebration Europe event, we had official confirmation of the new star of the as-yet-untitled Han Solo standalone film.

Alden Ehrenreich!

John Boyega and Alden Ehrenreich


Alden Ehrenreich was recently seen in the Coen Brothers picture ‘Hail, Caesar!’ as cowboy actor Hobie Doyle, meaning he follows in the same footsteps as Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver in transferring from the Coens to the new Star Wars Universe.

Boyega offered Ehrenreich some wise words: “You’re gonna be fine… You’ve got that charm stuff down… And he’s smiling just like Han!”

Catch up on further articles about the Celebration weekend with the below links:


Day 1 review

Day 2 review

Screen 6… With Edith Bowman

If you’re in the UK and want something film-related that’s massively interesting to listen to in the office or on your travels – and free – then head over to the 6 Music website and download the Screen 6 podcasts.

Presented by Edith Bowman, each episode consists of an interview with some massive A-Listers from the world of film. This includes Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg, the Coen brothers, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson and, most recently, Christopher Nolan. They discuss in great detail the choices behind their greatest scoring and soundtracking achievements, inspirations and influences. It’s well worth a listen. The only limitation is that the songs are cut short in podcast format, though if you’re lucky you can get them on the iPlayer and get the whole show.

Every episode can be found here.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2014)

Before I start I must confess I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. So much so that I recently went on a day-long course at Broadway Cinema (which was excellent by the way). I look forward to every Coen brothers release and when it’s coupled with a Palme d’Or win then you know you’re in for an entertaining two hours.

The looping storyline concerns the struggling titular character, a performing artist in New York’s Greenwich village, as he tries to make ends meet and regain the popularity he once had with his former singing partner Mike Timlin (who has since committed suicide). It is packed full of astonishing musical performances, not least from Oscar Isaac (previously famed for the King to Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, though set to become quite well known when he stars in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII). Joining him are Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as the main stars of the film, though they are definitely in supporting roles. There are also cameos from heaps of great actors, my favourite being the highly comical contribution from John Goodman.

Llewyn Davis Singing

The soundtrack is clearly the driving force behind the storyline. One of the greatest achievements the Coens manage is to allow our attention to be fully dedicated to the music. It’s never a case of starting a song and cutting away to a montage or separate conversation whilst the song goes through the motions of a second verse or middle 8. It is clear they are truly passionate about the music that drives the story and in almost every case the song is uninterrupted from start to finish. It could well be the greatest Coen Brothers soundtrack yet, and if you’ve heard the O Brother Where Art Thou? OST then you know what a compliment that is.

If you’re looking for something to lift your mood, steer clear. Indeed, if you are a struggling artist yourself, you might also want to give it a wide berth unless you are just interested solely in excellent musicianship. With someone this talented struggling to make ends meet and not showing any sign of getting anywhere with his music, you might leave convinced to never pick the guitar up again. If you can put all that aside and simply appreciate the (perhaps surprisingly) excellent musicianship captured so perfectly here then you’re bound to be a happy viewer.

This film is not going to go down as one of the great Coen Brothers films. It just doesn’t have the indescribable magic of, say, The Big Lebowski or Fargo. It is by no means a terrible film, but I just don’t think it has the widespread appeal of some of their other releases. It’s well worth checking out, though I recommend you give it your full attention.

Inside Llewyn Davis is out now in UK cinemas.